Cheryl Metzger / June 28, 2017

Branding Artificial Intelligence: A Q&A with Director of Cognitive Experience Design Christopher Reardon

What color eyes does your brand have? Can your brand tell from my voice if I’m happy or frustrated? Does your brand know—and remember—what kind of personality I have? If you’ve spent most of your career translating “brand” into TV spots, digital marketing tactics, or content, you may want to hit pause and reconsider those questions. That’s because disruptive change is right around the corner for brand marketers, and its name is artificial intelligence.

Already “AI” and notions of branding are facing off: Publicis Groupe made headlines when it announced that it would forgo creative award ceremonies for at least a year in order to define and develop its own proprietary AI, dubbed “Marcel,” with the aim of bringing better insights into client work, enabling employee collaboration at a global scale, and connecting employees’ passions with opportunities in the network. The backlash, of course, was swift. Stories immediately emerged of disgruntled creatives protesting the decision as “de-humanizing.”

Businesses, too, are struggling to manage ongoing disruption. No longer is it enough to push a message out into the marketplace. Brands are instead waking up to the limits of digital marketing and the importance of delivering valuable experiences in the analog (aka “real”) world. And it’s not just experiences that matter—it’s beliefs. A recent study by Edelman confirms that customers will boycott brands they feel go against their values.

The trend is clear—there is a desire for greater humanity in our businesses and our brands. But will AI stifle that desire or empower it? Can brands anticipate and adapt to the changes AI will inevitably bring? How can creatives adapt to this new threat and opportunity?

To answer these questions and more, I recently chatted with IPsoft’s director of cognitive experience design, Christopher Reardon—a UX designer, artist, and digital strategist who left the world of advertising to push the boundaries of AI design. He and I talked all things AI and, in the process, gathered advice for designers and brand marketers on how to approach the big changes to come.

(Edited for clarity and concision)

How did you get into the field of branding AI? 
I trained as a designer back in the 90s and in the last 15 to 18 years I’ve been doing UX, predominantly branded UX. Most recently I worked on IBM Watson and helped develop its global branding.

What would you say was the biggest challenge in branding Watson? 
We’re in a radical time and AI is one of the most radical things we’ve created. The problem for me was in diverting back to the traditional way of presenting a brand message (with TV spots). To deliver that through TV really didn’t sit well with me. Delivering AI, you need to experience it to really understand what it is, and I was pushing for experiential branding—bring Watson to the street, and let people experience it first-hand. You can diffuse the fears around AI if you handle it in the right way, putting it in people’s hands and letting them experience it for themselves.

I know there was also some conversation around developing Watson’s speaking voice; does an AI having a human voice enter into the “uncanny valley,” where people begin to feel uncomfortable with how human-like technology has become? Or do you believe voice interaction creates a familiar interface that makes the technology more approachable? 
I think people are unaware of how much AI is in the world already. The uncanny valley—things that mimic humans—do those things scare people? I think yes, they can be creepy, but if you’re driving in your car and Google Maps tells you to turn left that doesn’t feel creepy. I think the line on what people consider creepy is moving as these technologies become a part of our lives. What we used to find unsettling we don’t find unsettling today.

Speaking of the uncanny valley, how do you feel about using human pronouns for an AI experience? 
You kind of go back and forth. Because we’re pushing into something that’s not yet defined in normal language, the closest things we can grab hold of when we talk about AI are things that relate to us. I refer to our “Amelia” as a human because there are components of her brain that are human-like. We modeled Amelia’s brain on the human brain. And our linguistics group has worked hard to not just ensure she is able to communicate, but to ensure she’s a good conversationalist. After all, as humans we all know what a good conversation is, we all have people we love to talk with, and people who aren’t that great at conversing. What makes the difference between the two is empathy—understanding the emotional state of your audience and being able to respond back appropriately.

Why is being a good conversationalist so important for AI? 
It’s critical. We see the customer experience as being driven through the language. We consider things like “what would be the most comfortable conversation for, for instance, changing a ticket on a flight? How about if someone is changing a ticket because of a family emergency?” You have to think through each scenario and the audience’s emotional state. Then we first design the interaction based on what we imagine a good conversation would sound like and then go through it again by considering how a bad conversation might go, so we can identify potential pitfalls.

“We see the customer experience as being driven through the language.”

So will all of these conversations with AI be recorded? How do you envision brands making the most of this new qualitative data? 
Soon, we’ll have made it possible to analyze your emotional state by the tenor of your voice, giving us an incredible new set of analytics—we can already do this with chat. Having analytics that help you to pinpoint exactly where a conversation is going well or not going well? Brands can track where people are getting annoyed, so they know how to change that point in the conversation. It’ll also help them to assess how good the business process behind the interaction is.

And it would give the brand the ability to scale those conversations, right? 
Yes, it would give you incredible scale when it comes to customer service. Imagine if you could put only your best agents in front of every customer and then track how those conversations go and improve them with learning over time. That becomes incredibly powerful. In essence customers will get their own personalized customer service rep. And every time they talk to your brand, the AI will know exactly who they are and adapt to their needs and personality.

With the focus AI brings to personalized interaction, how do you think our notion of what it means to be a brand will evolve? 
The biggest change in our notion of brands is that they will become more intimate, immediate and interactive. Brand AIs will need to be trained, not simply managed by humans. That means brand managers will end up working directly with the AI to determine the baseline experience of the brand that the AI will deliver consistently. Then they’ll help determine how it is allowed to alternate relative to different customer types, allowing for a feedback loop that learns from individual conversations and gets input from brand managers on how to evolve appropriately. In the end, it’ll become an arms race of personality, with brands competing to see which AI has the best one.

“In the end, it’ll become an arms race of personality, with brands competing to see which AI has the best one.”

So with all of these changes to come, what advice would you offer to the future experience designers of AI technology—UX designers who might just be beginning to explore it. What should they think about? 
First, I’d say, “go out and experience the world.” Try to capture and record the best experiences you have in every part of life, and why they made you feel good. Those contextual details are super important–because that’s the kind of fine grain level of customer experience we’re going to get in the next couple of years, that level of contextual choreography.

Next, I’d suggest thinking about dimensionality—wireframes are still important because there is a dimensionality to being a UX designer. It’s kind of like being an architect—you have to be able to take someone through a journey and a space. Wireframes are still the closest thing I’ve found to be able to realize business strategy, because it’s in the seemingly small details, like what kind of button and image I put on a page, that the business strategy lives or fails.

Lastly, you have to have a great narrative—like in a movie, why did a director choose that angle and not another? You have to be good at understanding the intersection between storytelling, visual, and dimensional design.

“Wireframes are still the closest thing I've found to be able to realize business strategy, because it's in the seemingly small details that the business strategy lives or fails.”

It sounds like UX designers are poised to become the “new” creatives of the agency world. What about brand planners and marketers—what should they do when they’re inevitably charged with branding a client’s AI experience

There are six stages I think every brand manager should take as they brand an AI:

  • Uncover where the brand is most human today. What does your brand care about? Who is an actual human in your business, not an invented character, who best exemplifies your brand’s values?
  • Engage in role playing games to observe and learn from this person’s reactions, speaking style, personal history and mannerisms. These become the design elements that will allow your brand to feel consistent and human at scale.
  • Determine your AI naming strategy. Should the name be human or proprietary? Should it be approachable? Evocative? The name should align with the story you want your brand to tell.
  • Define your learning strategy. What new sources of data (e.g. your customer’s emotional state, linguistic patterns, ideal conversation styles) will your brand have access to? How will you capture that data? How will you learn from, and take action on, those insights to continually improve the AI experience?
  • Plan for ongoing training. Recognize that “brand” in the new AI-driven world will be organic, requiring continuous nurturing, monitoring and flexibility from the brand manager.
  • Be transparent. Never hide from customers that their interaction is with an AI. Brands may want to consider adding a “Powered by” byline to any branded AI experiences so that they can be transparent with their customers.

After speaking with Christopher, it was clear that AI and its new applications will continue to provoke, open up new opportunities, and challenge our assumptions. To not be caught at the mercy of AI’s disruptive potential, marketers and creatives alike need to rethink what it means to build a brand—from a controlled construct of message and media to an interactive experience fueled by empathy, beliefs and behaviors; from flat screens and advertising copy to designing for conversation, dimension and physical interaction. By refocusing brands on real world emotions and interactions, AI may deliver the ultimate irony against detractors and fear-mongers—forcing us to think like humans again.

Cheryl Metzger is director of strategy for Wire Stone’s Chicago office, where she leads consulting in customer experience strategy, digital marketing, and communications design.